For the past few years in my circles, “vocation” talk has been omnipresent. The Navigators has a foundation grant to attend to the topic. Our church's retreat has focused on it. Many quote theologian N.T. Wright's words about it. Regent College has produced a video series related to it. And this winter I’ll be on a panel where “vocation” will be central to the discussion. Bottom line: vocation talk is everywhere, giving much good and needed meaning to our daily labor.
Sometimes, though, I've struggled, sensing that vocation is not the whole story, aching but unable to name what's missing.
About this time last year, however, I sat down to chat with J.I. Packer about the classic book by Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, The Saints' Everlasting Rest. Now Dr. Packer is pushing 90 and still has a serious twinkle in his eye. Just contemplating him makes me smile. He thinks in straight lines; I think in Impressionist paint blobs—so our (albeit infrequent) conversations have always had a delightful bit of push and pull.
Sitting down to talk about Baxter’s view of heaven—and its implications for earthly life—I suddenly blurt out, “But sometimes in all our talk about our earthly vocations, something feels like it’s missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it…but…!” (When I am with Dr. Packer, in spite of—or perhaps because of—his measured reasoning, I tend to become a little more dramatic.)
“Ah, yes, Connally,” he replies, head nodding and eyes dancing, “We do talk much about vocation. Tom has led the way in this.” (Tom is how Jim refers to N.T. Wright.) “And Tom does love to work! But as happens among limited mortals, we can oftentimes emphasize one aspect of faith at the expense of another.”
With more head shaking and pointing to my guts, I groan, “But what is it?! I know something’s missing, but I can’t quite name it.”
He pauses and tilts his head.
“It is, my dear, adoration. The abandonment of self to something--or Someone--far greater than self. We get tastes of such abandon in this life, but there is also a joy as we anticipate being fully abandoned to and in our Lord’s presence. It's an imperfect analogy, but it's almost like when I was a boy. Though I wasn't much good at it, there was a joy in playing cricket. But anticipating attending a match of those greater than I--that was a breathless joy in and of itself.” At this point his entire face lights up, and we both begin to chuckle, like he has let me in on the punch line to a wonderful, cosmic riddle.
“Sometimes,” he continues, “I do worry that this generation has lost sight of this joy—the joy of being lost in that which is infinitely more grand than oneself and one’s impact.” He says the word impact not with disdain, but with a measured distance, as if he understands the concept but has not fully given himself to it.
Then nodding, he repeats: “Yes, abandoning one’s self to He who is greater than oneself is a great joy indeed! It is a gift of the Lord himself."
His eyes glance at the clock. His wife is expecting him for lunch.
But I leave that conversation contemplating what it is, in this busy, busy world of much (good and meaningful) work to lose myself in adoration of the One who is greater than I. And as my gut settles, I begin to smile, latching on to that which has felt like a missing piece in the story.